Prices have sharply risen for Florida vegetables after a prolonged freeze and the fallout could continue through late winter. For this updated coverage, see Florida growers: Prepare for corn, bean, tomato supply gaps.

IMMOKALEE, Fla. — As growers assess damage caused by multiple nights of subfreezing temperatures, tomatoes, green beans and sweet corn have suffered the most amount of harm in early estimates.

Florida vegetables 'severely hurt'

Doug Ohlemeier

A Dec. 15 freeze burned leaves and severely damaged Immokalee, Fla.-area winter tomatoes like these in a field north of Immokalee.
Florida grower-shippers are assessing damages from numerous nights of bitter cold that also destroyed much of their winter green beans and corn.

Shippers say buyers should expect shortages of Florida tomatoes and other vegetables.

The third night of bitter cold in south Florida’s growing regions during the early morning hours of Dec. 15 could cut Immokalee-area tomatoes by as much as 80% and finish Belle Glade-area beans and corn which were hurt in an earlier freeze in early December.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, which has winter tomato production in the Immokalee area, said buyers can expect supply gaps and higher prices.

“When we saw the freeze coming, we started harvesting all the tomatoes we could and have them in the room,” he said Dec. 15. “We plan to sell next during the next four to five days. After that inventory is sold, there will be a gap of four to six weeks of not a lot of product coming out of Florida. After that, there won’t be any product coming out.”

Immokalee-area vegetables such as green beans also suffered losses.

“We have been severely hurt,” said Chris Tordonato, sales manager of Florida Specialties Inc., which grows and ships beans and bell peppers.

Jon Esformes, operating partner and chief marketing officer for Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, said it may be until Dec. 19-20 before growers fully understand the extent of damage caused by the temperatures which fell into the mid-20s.

“We have moderate to severe damage,” Esformes said Dec. 15. “We need to see how the plants react to some warm days. We won’t know until we get some sunlight on the plants.”

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, said younger plantings appear to have survived better than older plantings.

“It’s pretty tough,” Stuart said. “This deal last night at first blush was pretty impactful. We will be a little smarter later in the week and next week.”

While Belle Glade saw heavy losses in beans and corn, Stuart said temperatures fell so low that even corn in the normally warmer Homestead got hurt. Though growers expect to do some trimming, Stuart said Palm Beach County leaf and lettuce growers aren’t expecting damage to be as severe as other growers.

Because of a later start following a late bloom, Stuart said citrus growers may experience some leaf drop but weren’t initially reporting serious damage.

He said low winds and irrigation helped protect central Florida’s strawberries.

Though no one has given an official estimate on damage, Mike Owens, a salesman with Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade, said he has never seen so much ice in the area.

“It looks like it’s very devastating,” he said Dec. 15. “We got hit last week pretty bad, so there wasn’t a whole lot left still green and still alive. We definitely had a frost and had lots of ice everywhere this morning. Everything is probably frozen.”

The Immokalee-area tomato harvest generally begins in late November and ramps up in volume in December, with central Florida production typically finishing by Christmas.

Growers report tomatoes in the central Florida Palmetto-Ruskin growing region, which typically end production by late December, were destroyed as temperatures fell to 29 degrees.